GULFPORT, Miss.—The BP oil spill is 1 year old this week, the whole disaster having killed or injured 28 rig workers, thousands of birds and hundreds of marine animals, and spewed 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico over three months.
The disaster has helped to shine an intense spotlight on a Gulf already suffering from human encroachment with 4,000 to 8,000 square miles of sea bottom dead each summer from lack of oxygen and a loss of Louisiana coastal wetlands in recent decades the size of Rhode Island.
Yet beaches along the northern Gulf attract billions in tourism dollars, the seafood industry supports thousands of families and the inshore waters act as a nursery for many species, some that only breed in the Gulf.
In the year since the disaster, BP has continued to manage the event, promising restoration and holding out that both the environment and peoples’ livelihoods will be made whole eventually.
Meanwhile, an army of federal and state agencies are on a fact-finding mission to tally the damage to natural resources and encourage BP to make restitution in a process that is growing by the day, with more than 30,000 samples collected and tens of thousands of other pieces of evidence involved.
It’s a process that has been successful with smaller spills in getting oil companies to pay without going to court.
That same process, however, is creating a type of gag order on findings from the Gulf — keeping scientists who are contributing to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment quiet until all is settled, which could be years. And that comes while other noted scientists are working for BP.
The process is leaving those who live along the northern Gulf distrusting of government, optimistic about the beaches and this year’s crop of seafood, but leery that what lies below the surface of the Gulf in the water and on the sea floor will haunt them for decades and generations.
The Gulf is big, 600,000 square miles. The oil spill amount has been likened to a football field cubed. The amount of dispersants used was 1.84 million gallons.
All was released into an eco-system that is fragile and very diverse — from ancient, slow-growing coral reefs in the deep to thousands of square miles of shallow marshlands.
“There’s good evidence that a large part of the oil is degraded or diluted away,” said Dr. Joe Griffitt, aquatic toxicologist with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Lab. “There are trillions and trillions of gallons of water in the Gulf.”
But for toxicology, that’s not the point. Having it in the breeding grounds at all during the spring and summer reproduction cycles last year could leave a lasting mark.
“While it was a dirty Gulf, there’s no way releasing that much oil and dispersant in the water is good for anybody,” he said.
But looking back, Griffitt said, “For a long time the oil stayed in the middle of the Gulf, had it gone inland faster to the estuaries, it would have been much worse.”
Sorting out the long-term effects of the oil and dispersant will take time.
In a recently released study, scientists found the dispersant Corexit present in the water 200 miles from the well head as long as two months after the company stopped spraying it, which shows it existed longer than expected, Griffitt said.
USM’s Gulf Coast Research Lab has spent a lot of its own money to gather baseline and other information essential to long-term studies.
And there’s no substantial money coming in, said Director Bill Hawkins.
Guidelines aren’t even out for how to apply for the $500 million BP set aside for long-term research.
Gulf researchers anxiously are awaiting that.
All told, BP says it has paid state and local governments more than $754 million and reimbursed the federal government for another $694 million.